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Andy Larsen: NBA players must wait their turn for vaccination

Commissioner Adam Silver’s recent comments sounded a lot like he was floating the idea of getting players vaccinated early

FILE - In this April 18, 2020, file photo, a temporary sign is placed at Sleep Train Arena that had been turned into a 400-bed emergency field hospital in Sacramento, Calif., to help deal with the coronavirus. When California was anticipating a spring surge in coronavirus cases it turned an old NBA arena and practice facility into a field hospital prepared to take hundreds of patients. They were told to expect 30 to 60 patients within the first few days, but only nine arrived over the next 10 weeks. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

“OK, so ten out of ten for style, but minus several million for good thinking, yeah?” — Zaphod Beeblebrox, complaining that his spaceship has picked up hitchhikers while running from space police in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

That was essentially my thought this week when the NBA commissioner Adam Silver seriously floated the plan to have NBA players record public service announcements about the vaccine’s efficacy, a statement which many interpreted as the NBA floating the idea in exchange for jumping the coronavirus vaccination queue.

If that’s the intent, you have to acknowledge Silver’s audacity — but also his stupidity.

To be sure, the league has a problem. In December, Silver pledged that the league would wait its turn, but that’s easier to say before the league ran into significant COVID problems. We’re now seeing postponements of games nearly nightly, as one team or another runs into the contact tracing ramifications of having a player test positive. The Washington Wizards didn’t play a game for nearly two weeks as they worked through their quarantine, the Memphis Grizzlies just postponed three games, and only seven teams haven’t yet seen a game postponed due to the coronavirus.

The postponements also don’t reflect the zombie games — the games on the schedule where much of a team’s roster is out for one reason or another, but a team still has the requisite eight players to play on. That leads to some bad basketball and unfair situations for teams on both ends of the bargain.

The NBA even now sends out security postgame, to stand mid-court to prevent players from handshakes and hugs after the game. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, given that the players were sharing the court for the two hours before, but it shows some of the desperation the league has in stopping the spread of the virus within its ranks.

I understand Silver’s urgency in wanting his players to get vaccinated. And yet, the NBA’s problems are not unique, nor are they particularly urgent. Every business in America has had to deal with the ramifications of coronavirus. And I’d go so far as to say that the majority of those ramifications were more significant than postponed basketball games.

Silver’s argument is simple: that vaccinating players wouldn’t just save the league some trouble, it would also lead to increased vaccination among African Americans.

“Several public health officials — and this is operating state by state right now — have suggested there would be a real public health benefit to getting some very high-profile African Americans vaccinated to demonstrate to the larger community that it is safe and effective,” he said.

There may well be. African Americans do show less confidence in the vaccine than other Americans, though by a relatively small margin. Sixty-two percent plan to get vaccinated compared with 71% of all of America.

But now isn’t the time for Silver’s plan. Right now, we have a real lack of vaccine, not a lack of people to take it. Here in Utah, the demand for the vaccine is “off the charts,” and nationwide, demand is even higher. Once the problem of vaccination is limited demand, and not limited supply, Silver’s argument would have some merit. Only then should he volunteer the services of the league’s players.

Some have argued that vaccination of potential super-spreaders would do more to prevent death in our communities than vaccinating at-risk folks, simply by reducing virus spread as quickly as possible. That actually is a reasonable approach with the flu — the characteristics of which mean that vaccinating even 20% of children means reducing spread by 46%. NBA players, traveling in and out of multiple cities per week, would be at the top of the list of people who might be most likely to spread the coronavirus.

But as everyone knows at this point, the coronavirus is not the flu — it’s significantly more transmittable. A study released Thursday explicitly looked at the issue, modeling coronavirus death reduction with a number of vaccination strategies. And the findings were conclusive:

“After accounting for country-specific age structure, age-contact structure, infection fatality rates, and seroprevalence, as well as the age-varying efficacy of a hypothetical vaccine, we found that across countries those aged 60 and older should be prioritized to minimize deaths.”

In sum: Yes, giving vaccination priority to the NBA’s cohort of 20- to 40-year-olds would result in additional deaths compared with giving those vaccines to elderly or other at-risk populations as planned. Full stop.

I’m all on board for NBA players being vaccinated when their turn comes, and I’m sure teams and the league will coordinate it so that they’re quickly in and out of local vaccination centers. I’m even supportive of making a little bit of a scene about it, showing that these prominent members of our community are believers in science.

But jumping the queue? No way. Let’s shut that idea down now, before the scoreboard of good thinking has a chance to register what happened.

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